How to Work Deeply
Much of this blog has discussed deep work and how things like phones and anxiety negatively affect it, but there hasn’t been much on how to actually preform deep work. How to find that concentration and go into your own personal zone during your work. It seems complex on the surface, but the main key is doing what you can to maximize your work and make it deep.
Finding your spot
The first key to successful deep work is finding the right spot. You can’t just plop yourself wherever you see fit and go to work, you need that spot that will truly elevate your focus. What can make this difficult though is how nobody has the exact same spot. Some may prefer a vacant room void of all distractions while other need the bustling sounds of a coffee shop to get their creative juices flowing. All of this means is that finding your spot requires you to understand how you prefer to work.
There are limits though. As said by Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen in their article Remedies for the distracted mind, simplicity is often key
“Limit yourself to a single screen. Yes, multiple screens are nice for spreading out your work, but they create distractions. In addition, put away all nonessential work materials on your desk, leaving only paper materials that you absolutely need to complete a task. When that is done, get rid of those distracting books and notes. Whenever possible simply find a quiet environment devoid of other people and the presence of interruptions. If you must work in a noisy environment such as a coffee shop, consider wearing noise-canceling headphones.”
The best way to avoid distractions is to not have access to them. By limiting what’s in your deep work space to only the bare essentials, it makes is much easier to focus on your work.
Handling some external factors
Even after most of us have our workspace set up to avoid distractions, the chance for distraction is still there. Your phone may not be near you, but now all you can think about is how much you’re missing out on by doing this work. This distracts you more and more until eventually you cave and check it, just to find nothing. In the aforementioned article on distractions, Gazzaley and Rosen had this plan for combating the FOMO and anxiety that many have when avoiding their phone
“First, send out an email (or text) to anyone that you connect with on a regular and continuing basis. Explain that you are working under a “90–20 plan” (or perhaps one of the plans we will discuss below) and that you will be off the grid for ninety minutes and then will check and answer all communications during your break time. If you regularly respond immediately on social media, post a notice there about your new work plan”
I know for me, my mom gets overly paranoid if I don’t answer her text as fast as I usually do, which is why I make sure to tell her when I’m about to do work for a bit. Making sure to quell other potential issues before your deep work helps provide some relief, especially since you won’t have to worry about coming back to multiple “Are you okay?” texts.
Take a breather
Another major key in deep work is knowing when to take your breaks. Breaks are essential to productive learning and no; they don’t mean you’re lazy even if your company wants you to believe that. As shown in this New York Times article written by Tony Schwartz, things like naps, better sleeping hours, and vacations actually improve productivity, not hurt it. He describes this practice as renewal.
Now of course you have to be taking proper breaks. Checking your social media every ten minutes isn’t an effective break. Breaks in this sense are planned out and managed. You work for 90 minutes, then take a 20-minute reprieve to regain your energy. Even if you still feel energized, go on a small run to help get your mind off your work and refocus it. As the age-old proverb says “quality over quantity”.
The Eudaimonia Machine
These strategies work well for the individuals deep work, but one question that remains is how to provide this in a proper company workspace. With so many different people to accommodate for and everyone feeling the need to be communicating constantly, it makes you wonder if that’s even possible. David Dewane, mentioned in Rule #1 of Cal Newport’s Deep Work, presented a potential idea for how it could work.
In Dewane’s set up, called the eudaimonia (A Greek concept for when someone is achieving their full potential) machine there’s 5 rooms all connected together with no hallways. As you pass through these rooms the workspace gets deeper and deeper, going from a causal salon setting to soundproof work rooms.
I find this concept fascinating. It covers all the deep work essentials, such as a proper quiet space with limited distractions, as well as providing avenues for collaboration and rest. Many who love the open office concept often forget about the negative effects it has on work. With this building design though, you can have both an open office space as well as one for deep work. You could start your day by working in the office for 90 minutes, then discussing your work in the salon area with your coworkers. During this time maybe you discover some new ideas for your work, then implement those in your next 90-minute session.
The biggest key to properly utilizing deep work is balance and simplicity. Yes, you need to commit yourself into your work for large chunks of time, but you also need to give yourself breaks. Your deep work area doesn’t need to be some extravagant bomb shelter, just a place that you feel comfortable in and can focus. With concepts such as these, you’ll be able to accomplish deep work.